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David Moshman: 'Sexual Harassment Is Wrong Because It Is Harassment, Not Because It Is Sexual'

In light of the Departments of Education and Justice's new federal "blueprint" for campus sexual harassment policies, David Moshman, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, writes for The Huffington Post today to share a story that would be funny if it weren't true.  At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) a psychology graduate student named Toni Blake studied and taught human sexuality. One day in 1993 Blake brought a banana to a class session on contraception and used it to illustrate the application of a condom. Warning about the danger of impregnation prior to ejaculation, she joked that men, like basketball players, "dribble before they shoot."A male student was not amused. He subsequently accused her of sexual harassment, charging that she "objectified" the penis and thus created a hostile academic environment for him as a man.  This is exactly the sort of situation we can expect if and when universities implement new policies based on the ED and DOJ "blueprint." Blake's remark was simply a humorous way of conveying a fact that was directly relevant to her lesson. But because one student was offended, she was threatened with punishment and had to drastically revise her course materials.  In explaining why this incident is troubling, Moshman points to the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska's (AFCON's) Statement on Sexuality and Academic Freedom, which AFCON adopted in 2000. It defines harassment as "a pattern of actions specifically directed against a particular individual with the intent of humiliating, intimidating, or otherwise harming that individual," and states that "harassment is not protected by norms of academic freedom regardless of the sexual content of any ideas that may be expressed as part of the act of harassment." Or, as Moshman insightfully comments: Sexual harassment is wrong because it is harassment, not because it is sexual. We must define harassment strictly so we can oppose it consistently without infringing on the freedom to teach and talk about sexuality. It seems that the Departments of Education and Justice have lost sight of why harassment is a problem to begin with. Now, instead of targeting harmful conduct, schools are being directed to investigate potentially any speech about sex, even when that speech contains important information for adult students.

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